Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat?

Posted by: Chris
Designed for: High School, Lower School, Middle School
Estimated Time Necessary: 30 minutes
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In his article, “What is it like to be a bat?” Thomas Nagel argues that there are facts about the conscious experience that are subjective and can only be known from that subjective perspective. Even if we know all the objective facts about bats, we may not actually know what it would really be like to be a bat. We might be able to imagine what it would be like to hang upside down, fly through the night, or use echolocation to track prey, but Nagel argues that we really couldn’t know what a bat’s experience is really like.

 

Start off with this simple question/s (with an example of a cat instead of a bat):

 

What is it like to be a cat? Imagine that you are a cat. What would you do? What would you feel? (If you’re teaching elementary school, you can even ask them to act like a cat.)

 

(Allow students to respond.)

 

Now, you have told us some of the things you would do and how you would feel if you were in the cat’s shoes, but do you really know it is like to be a cat? Have you smelled cat nip? Do you get excited when you smell catnip? We know how excited a cat gets when it smells catnip, but we don’t know really know how it feels. Even though we know lots of things about cats, we don’t have the same experience; so can we really know the experience of another?

 

(Allow students to respond, and see what questions arise.)

 

Some follow-up questions may include:

 

What is it like to be a fish? Or an ant? Can we really know how another being things or feels?

 

How do we know whether a computer is conscious? Or a plant? Or a rock? And if they are conscious, can we know what it is like?

 

How do we know that the person sitting next to you is conscious? How do we know that the person next to you sees the sky as the same color of blue, or that a lemon tastes sour to them; could someone else see the same sky as “green” and that the same lemon tastes sweet?

Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat?

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